In recent years, pre-Kindergarten has become a rather popular idea among policymakers and the public. The latest cases in point include the Columbus mayor’s announcement of a new $5 million initiative to provide quality pre-K. Meanwhile, just last week, Cleveland-area entities announced a massive $35 million, two-year plan to expand access to quality pre-K. Yet, as Ohio’s policymakers enthusiastically tout pre-K, they should understand that it isn’t necessarily an educational slam dunk. Consider Grover “Russ” Whitehurst’s excellent summary of the research.[1] Whitehurst analyzes thirteen pre-K studies from the 1960s to the present, grading the quality of the research and reporting the impact of the program. Whitehurst begins with a look at two widely cited studies from the 1960s and 1970s, Perry Preschool and Abecedarian, both of which found positive, long-term impacts for participants. So far so good, but Whitehurst reminds us that Perry and Abecedarian studies were evaluations of small single-site programs. (Perry, for example, had just fifty-eight participants.) This limits the ability to infer that large-scale pre-K programs would confer similar benefits. As he moves into studies from recent years, Whitehurst reports less positive findings on large-scale pre-K programs. In his view, the two strongest pre-K studies have been the Head Start and the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K program evaluations. The Head Start evaluation found no effect of pre-K, while in Tennessee there was evidence of slightly negative effects on child outcomes. To conclude, Whitehurst writes, “[The] best available evidence raises serious doubts that a large public investment in the expansion of pre-k for four-year-olds will have the long-term effects that advocates tout.” So, should Ohio’s policymakers and philanthropists plunge head-first into a pre-K spending spree? Maybe, and maybe not—but the tenuous research findings on wide-reaching pre-K programs raise questions about how (and if) they can be brought to scale effectively. A return on investment will hinge on whether pre-K is done well and targets the tykes who need it most.

SOURCE: Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, “Does Pre-k Work? It Depends How Picky You Are,” The Brown Center Chalkboard at the Brookings Institution, February 26, 2014.

[1] Compare with Timothy Bartik’s (somewhat rosier) perspective on the pre-K research.


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